The Great Commoner – William Jennings Bryan


William Jennings Bryan was the youngest man ever to be nominated for president by a major party. He was also the only man to be the runner-up in a presidential election three times. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives for four years, and as Secretary of State for two years. Yet his effect on his party and his country far exceeded anything that might be indicated by his six short years of service.

Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois on March 19, 1860. His father was a local politician, and both his parents were intensely religious. His own religious fervor had its roots in his devoutly religious upbringing.

Bryan “read” law in the office of Lyman Trumbull, Abraham Lincoln’s friend and a U.S. Senator, and attended law school at the same time. He was married shortly after beginning his law practice. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Baird Bryan, also became a lawyer and was a strong influence on Bryan throughout his career.

On a routine trip to Iowa to inspect land owned by his father-in-law, Bryan stayed with a law school friend in Lincoln, Nebraska. He decided to settle there, and opened a law firm with his friend in 1887. Less than three years later, he was elected to Congress from Nebraska. Although a Democrat, he was elected from a district that had been considered safely Republican. In 1892, he was re-elected but by a much smaller margin due to gerrymandering of his district by the Republican-controlled legislature. In 1894, he declined to run for re-election, running instead for the U.S. Senate. In spite of his usual active campaigning, he lost.

Bryan’s oratory was impressive during his first campaign for Congress, and got better with each race. By the time of the 1896 Democratic Convention, his oratory and efforts on behalf of free coinage of silver had made him well known. Bryan had become one of the leaders of the movement supporting the free coinage of silver. Silver had been discontinued as a coined metal in 1873. With hard times, including panics and recessions, after the Civil War, many farmers and debtors saw the return of silver coinage as a means of increasing the money supply and easing their troubles. One slogan was “16 to 1” referring to the ration of silver to gold coinage that existed from 1837 until silver coinage was discontinued in 1873.

When the 1896 convention began, the pro-silver forces controlled it. Bryan was selected as one of the silver speakers, and made a memorable speech full of rousing phrases, which stirred the convention. His most famous phrase was his final remarks, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The effect of his speech upon the convention delegates was incredible. The speech had been filled with memorable phrases that thrilled the pro-silver audience. But his final phrases left them overwhelmed. He was almost back in his seat on the convention floor before the silence was broken and the audience went wild with cheers and applause that lasted over half an hour. Bryan was nominated on the fifth ballot.

Bryan was only 36 years old at the time of his nomination, barely over the constitutional age requirement of 35. His youth and inexperience were major points in the Republican campaign against him. Bryan emphasized his youth and energy, traveling more than 18,000 miles and making more than 600 speeches, sometimes making ten or twenty speeches in a single day. His Republican opponent, William McKinley, ran a “front porch” campaign where the candidate remained at home and had groups of supporters come to him.

The results were close. McKinley won with 51% of the vote to Bryan’s 47%. The larger, better-organized and better-funded Republican Party beat Bryan. He was also beaten by the general prosperity the nation was enjoying. But Bryan was left as the main voice of the Democratic Party and the pro-silver forces. He was all set for a rematch in 1900. He spent his time traveling and making speeches advocating the coinage of silver.

During the Spanish-American War, the Governor of Nebraska authorized Bryan to raise a regiment of volunteers. Composed mainly of his pro-silver followers, his regiment was nicknamed the Silver Regiment. Because the McKinley administration was not anxious to make Bryan a hero, the Silver Regiment remained in Florida and was never sent to Cuba. When the war was over, President McKinley announced that most of the volunteer troops would be released from service. But rather than release Bryan and allow him back to the political arena, his regiment was retained on active duty. After serving for five months, Bryan resigned his commission.

After the war, imperialism became a new political issue. Bryan opposed American imperialism, but favored the treaty with Spain giving the U.S. control of Cuba and the Philippines. He favored later Congressional action to withdraw from those territories. This cost Bryan the support of many of his pro-silver followers, since most of them were anti-imperialists. They didn’t understand his support of the treaty in light of his claimed opposition to imperialism.

As the election of 1900 approached, Bryan’s supporters split into two camps. One wanted silver to continue to be the main issue. The other wanted him to drop the silver issue and concentrate on the new issues of imperialism and business trusts. The interest of the American people had moved on to new issues, but Bryan had not. Many groups were in agreement with Bryan’s positions against imperialism and trusts, but were not in agreement with his continued silver advocacy. Silver was no longer popularly accepted, or even considered an important issue. The American people began to perceive Bryan as obstinate and naive, a perception that plagued him the rest of his career.

At the convention in 1900, Bryan had a hard time getting the free silver plank into the platform. At one point, Bryan threatened to refuse the nomination if it were not accepted. The platform committee voted to accept the silver plank by one vote, and Bryan was again the Democratic nominee for President.

Bryan found that silver was no longer a popular issue, and his stand against imperialism was not shared by a majority of Americans. He tried to make the election a class war, but prosperity again worked against him. Bryan lost by a larger margin than he had in 1896. Prosperity, satisfaction with the results of the war, and Bryan’s continued image as a radical with strange ideas all worked against him.

After his second defeat, Bryan began the weekly newspaper “Commoner” which was distributed nationally through the mail. He also lectured in all parts of the country to keep his message, and himself, in front of the people.

In 1904, the gold forces took control of the convention, and the silver plank was voted down. The nominee was Alton Parker, a strong gold candidate. When Parker lost in a landslide, the stage was set for another Bryan attempt at the White House.

Bryan made such an effective race for the nomination in 1908 that he was the only major candidate at the convention. Roosevelt’s progressivism, which included many of Bryan’s ideas, made Bryan look less radical. Now older, Bryan seemed more acceptable, or at least more familiar, to the voters. Bryan’s third race for the White House was his worst defeat, with Bryan winning a smaller percentage of the popular vote than in either of the two previous contests.

In 1912, Bryan wanted to maintain his position as party leader, and was determined to prevent a conservative from getting the nomination. The two leading candidates were Governor Wilson of New Jersey and House Speaker Champ Clark, who seemed deadlocked after many ballots. Bryan had been voting for Clark, but then switched to Wilson. Many wondered if Bryan was trying to keep the convention deadlocked until they named him as a compromise candidate. This seemed especially true since the Democratic candidate would have a very good chance with the Republican Party split between Taft and Roosevelt.

But the convention named Wilson on the 46th ballot. Wilson won the election and named Bryan Secretary of State. Bryan served for two years, negotiating peace treaties with 29 nations. When Wilson began taking a more militaristic stand towards Germany, Bryan, who by this time had become a total pacifist, felt he could no longer serve. But he and Wilson parted on friendly terms. Bryan continued to advise Wilson, and worked on Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign. His final advice to Wilson was to compromise on the League of Nations Treaty. Wilson did not follow Bryan’s advice, and the Treaty failed in the Senate.

Bryan’s influence in the Democratic Party declined, and he played no major part in the selection of the party candidate in 1920. The next year, Bryan moved to Florida. In 1924, Bryan wrote legislation passed by the Florida legislature that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools. He carried his anti-evolution massage to college audiences and churches, trying to halt the trend of modernism that Bryan considered anti-religious. In 1925, Tennessee passed a similar law. A teacher named John Scopes defied the law to provoke a test case in court, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The prosecution invited Bryan to participate in the prosecution, hoping Bryan would bring national attention to the case.

The defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, was also nationally known. Darrow called Bryan as a witness. Bryan could have declined, but agreed to testify. Darrow tried to force Bryan into logical dilemmas, asking Bryan to explain his beliefs about whether each statement in the bible was literally true. Darrow asked about everything from Eve being made from Adam’s rib to Jonah being swallowed by a whale. By the end, Bryan was exhausted and sweating profusely due as much to the summer heat in the unairconditioned courthouse as to Darrow’s questions.

The perception left by Bryan’s statements on the bible was that he was a narrow-minded fundamentalist. Fundamentalists accused him of admitting too often that statements in the bible were metaphorical rather than literal.

Bryan and his supporters did not feel that he failed. Bryan intended to reverse roles and call Darrow to the stand. But the prosecution felt that Bryan had failed badly, and wanted to end the case immediately, so Darrow was not called. Neither side made closing arguments. Bryan had worked for months preparing his closing statements, so a second chance for him to make his case and clarify his position was lost. Scopes was found guilty, and a small fine was imposed.

Bryan planned to stay in the area for a while to dictate his closing statement he had not gotten the opportunity to make. Then he planned a vacation in the Smokey Mountains. Five days after the end of the trial, a friend found Bryan dead in bed, where he had died in his sleep.

Bryan’s “substantive accomplishments were meager, but he dragged his party, kicking and screaming, away from its conservative, defeatist past into its first contact with the reform-minded attitudes that would be its future under such leaders as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.” His life was a crusade, with politics and religion intertwined.

The image most people have of Bryan today is negative. He is remembered for the “Monkey Trial” and his three presidential defeats. That image is too one-sided, but history has properly determined that Bryan would not have been suited to the presidency. Bryan was an ideologue who became fixed on an idea and could not change.

Bryan was ahead of his times. The ideas he promoted unsuccessfully in 1896 and 1900 were part of Teddy Roosevelt’s platform in 1904. Bryan was the creator of the political alliance of small business, farmers, blacks, blue-collar workers with the Democratic Party that later elected Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.